Visions of America's Transportation Future On the golden anniversary of the the interstate highway system, planners are asking what the next 50 years will bring -- and there are signs the system will be bigger, faster and even more efficient. But critics say alternative travel modes are being ignored.

Visions of America's Transportation Future

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This week we've been marking the fiftieth anniversary of the nation's highway system. It was launched at a time of cheap gas, big tailfins and boundless confidence in America's ability to achieve whatever it put its mind to. So what might the next fifty years bring? As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, already the starting point looks very different.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

To drive from the NPR Studios in Los Angeles to the NPR Studios in Washington takes about thirty-nine hours. That's half the time it took to go from coast to coast before the interstate highways were built. But it's still too slow for Alan Pisarski. The Chairman of the National Academy of Sciences Transportation Committee recently crossed the country in a caravan of highway enthusiasts and found himself complaining about the five hour slog through Utah. From a hotel room in Laramie, Wyoming, he noted that the interstates roughly doubled the speed at which Americans travel. He'd like to see an equally bold increase in the next fifty years.

Mr. ALAN PISARSKI (National Academy of Sciences Transportation Committee): We have just among us been talking about a hundred mile per hour interstate. And my reflex and everybody else's is, a hundred miles an hour, are you crazy? But in fact I'm sure that there are a whole lot of people who were saying are you crazy when somebody said a sixty mile an hour interstate.

HORSLEY: He's not just in to speed for its own sake but to meet the growing needs of a growing population. The nation has about a hundred thirty million more people than it did when the interstate system was launched, and it could add more than that over the next 50 years. Pisarski says the aim of transportation is to connect those people with the things they value at a cost they can afford.

Mr. PISARSKI: If you think about what happened when we went from prop to jets, it wasn't simply the fact that I could get to Chicago in let's say half the time, what it really meant is that that airplane, that - that seven million dollar, 12 million dollar investment was able to make six trips a day instead of three, which meant that its per passenger mile costs went down dramatically.

HORSLEY: Of course, while Pisarski is talking about future freeway speeds of a hundred miles per hour, many urban commuters would be happy just to escape stop and go traffic jams. Engineering Professor Raj Rajkumar of Carnegie Mellon University hopes to relieve traffic congestion and reduce accidents in the future with the help of global positioning satellites and wireless communication that lets cars talk to each other.

Mr. RAJ RAJKUMAR (Carnegie Mellon University): For example, if you are ahead of me and you had to brake hard for whatever reason, that information can be communicated from your car to my car automatically by a computer. It can warn me and if I'm not paying attention, the car can even automatically brake itself.

HORSLEY: Rajkumar directs a research collaboration between the University and General Motors. He says all this motor magic could be available in just a few years. Sort of an automated 21st century version of truckers CB radios.

Mr. RAJKUMAR: And with over the longer term, you can imagine that cars will drive by themselves, in which case you just lean back and read your newspaper, just like you do on a train.

HORSLEY: The coming decades may also see more conventional improvements: new lanes added to existing roads and whole new interstates. John Horsley, who heads and association of state transportation officials, says the population is not only growing but shifting, and freeways have to adjust.

Mr. JOHN HORSLEY: If you look back to the '50s, the population was concentrated in the Northeast and the Midwest, the Chicago's and the New York's of the world. Now for the next 30 years, 88% of the growth in this country is expected to take place in the South and West, and one of the major facilitators of where the growth in this country is going is the interstate.

HORSLEY: But Horsley, no relation by the way, says that growth won't come without challenges.

Mr. J. HORSLEY: I'd say number one is money.

HORSLEY: But it's not just money for transportation that's scarce these days. Horsley says the federal government seems to lack an overall vision of what kind of transportation network it should be building. As a result, highway bills, like the one passed last year, are larded with bridges to nowhere.

Mr. HORSLEY: There was a lot of criticism over the pork issue and we want to put that one behind us and refocus the nation on how vital the interstate system and the transportation system is to our future.

HORSLEY: Of course some people think the interstate system has done enough, and it's time to focus more attention on alternatives. Anne Canby heads the Surface Transportation Policy Project. She'd rather see more bicycle lanes, more mass transit and more neighborhoods one can navigate on foot.

Ms. ANNE CANBY (Head of the Surface Transportation Policy Project): There needs to be a very clear, strong, national vision for transportation that would include a lot more travel options. It's not all interstate all the time. It's really got to be a collection of ways to move around.

HORSLEY: Like building the interstate highway itself, realizing any of these competing visions will take leadership. Unfortunately, Pisarski who dreams of the hundred mile an hour freeway say son top ten lists of government priorities, transportation always seems to rank number 11. Like anxious children in the back seat, mobile Americans keep asking: Are we there yet? And like a distant roadside attraction, a worthy successor to the interstate remains somewhere over the horizon. Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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CHADWICK: Go the distance. Hear the rest of our series at our website, NPR.org, All About the Interstate.

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